Thirteen Ways of Looking at Buck v. Bell

Michelle Oberman, Santa Clara University School of Law


This article is a review essay of Paul Lombardo's THREE GENERATIONS, NO IMBECILES: EUGENICS, THE SUPREME COURT AND BUCK V. BELL [Johns Hopkins Press, 2008]. Using Lombardo's rich and fascinating history of eugenics in the U.S. as a foundation, I propose and then explore a series of implications that stem from Buck v. Bell and are related to eugenic practices in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s. The themes upon which Lombardo touches may be grouped into three general categories: the state role in regulating fertility; gender, race, and class issues in fertility regulation; and contemporary reproduction-related politics as they pertain to human attributes. The article is written with an eye to a semester-long study of the governmental regulation of reproduction, past, present and future. Among the themes that fall within the first of these three broad categories are issues of fiduciary duty, which grow out of Lombardo's examination of the roles of doctors and lawyers in the Buck case. I also consider the government's role in regulating population more generally, examining the eugenic implications of contemporary immigration and population policies. The themes relating to gender, race and class include the consideration of maternal-doctor-fetal conflicts, as well as historical and contemporary efforts to link fertility control to criminal punishment. Finally, the third set of themes includes a discussion of the eugenic implications of contemporary issues in reproductive technology. Lombardo's book is well researched and fascinating. It deserves a broad readership, and this review provides a mechanism for bringing this rich history to life in the classroom and beyond.